John Paul II: The Philosopher Pope

By Lefebure, Leo D. | The Christian Century, February 15, 1995 | Go to article overview

John Paul II: The Philosopher Pope


Lefebure, Leo D., The Christian Century


DURING WORLD WAR II, Karol Wojtyla was a member of the underground Rhapsodic Theater. He was in the middle of performing one of the most patriotic plays in Polish literature when the sound of the Nazi radio interrupted with news of a German victory on the Russian front. While loudspeakers proclaimed the triumph of Hitler's armies, the young actor intoned his lines all the more forcefully: "The night was passing over the milky sky, the rosy beams of dawn began to fly."

At a time when some of his contemporaries fought in the Polish underground or joined in the uprising in Warsaw in 1944, Wojtyla pursued the quieter path of a seminarian. He was convinced, however, that literature, philosophy, theology and religious service could be weapons in the struggle for freedom. He would later look back on the war years and the sacrifices of his contemporaries: "I was a part of that generation and I must say that the heroism of my contemporaries helped me to define my personal vocation."

Nazis and communists might be defeated, but threats to human rights and life remained. The sacred dignity of the human person has remained at the center of Wojtyla's concerns. He has brought to successive struggles a deep religious fervor rooted in traditional Polish Catholicism, an intellectual background that includes two doctorates, and experience in a wide variety of roles. Before becoming pope he had been a poet, playwright, philosopher, parish priest, university professor and ecclesiastical prelate.

Wojtyla's life has never been free from conflict and controversy He has described his role as pope as that of being a "sign that will be contradicted ... a challenge." He has been criticized by liberal Catholics and Protestants for demanding strict loyalty to traditional positions on ordination and sexual ethics, and he has been hailed by conservatives as the pope of "the Catholic restoration." He has disappointed Protestant ecumenical leaders for his uncompromising stances, and he has aroused the ire of Orthodox Christians for his efforts to establish the Catholic Church in Eastern Europe after the fall of communism. John Paul is a complex figure whose thought escapes stereotypes; the effects of his pontificate whill be many-sided. His recent Writings - Crossing the Threshold of Hope, responses to the questions of Italian journalist Vittorio Messori, and As the Third Millennium Draws Near, his Apostolic Letter for the jubilee of the Year 2000-reflect his lifelong intellectual journey and his hopes for the future of Christianity. Whether one agrees with his positions or not, he is one of the few world leaders to possess a deeply considered religious and philosophical perspective on human existence.

As a theology student in Rome, under the guidance of one of the leading Thomist theologians of the day, Reginald Garrilou-LaGrange, Wojtyla a wrote his first doctoral dissertation on the meaning of faith in St. John of the Cross. St. John, the Mystical Doctor, taught the young doctoral candidate that the journey to God leads through the dark night of the soul, a time of deprivation and suffering. The dark night takes both active and passive forms. In this experience every natural ability of the person must be emptied so that God can accomplish a supernatural transformation of grace. Faith guides one through the painful process, even though this faith, in Wojtyla's words, "lacks all consolation and is without any light from above or below." Faith continues to trust in God despite its inability to see. Wojtyla conceded that this is better understood by experience than by concepts. The dark night is also the time of love, and perseverance leads to rapturous union with God.

Though Embracing the mystical theology which assumed faith in divine revelation and spoke to the community of believers, Wojtyla and his mentors knew that philosophical analyses of human action and ethics were of the utmost importance in the confrontation with communist theoreticians. …

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